Governor promises push for hydrogen fuel


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Mark Martin, Chronicle Sacramento Bureau

Davis -- Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, pushing to radically change the cars Californians drive, announced Tuesday an ambitious plan to line the state's highways with hydrogen fueling stations in just six years and usher in an age of more environmentally friendly vehicles.

Schwarzenegger pledged to champion hydrogen as a replacement for gasoline, promising a not-so-distant future in which the much-hyped technology is available along most of the state's main roadways. He called on academic experts, the auto industry and the government to work together on a hydrogen infrastructure plan that would create as many as 200 fueling stations up and down the state at an expected cost of $100 million.

If successful -- and many have doubts -- it would be a profound transportation transformation. Some Tuesday compared it to the country's move from the horse and buggy to the Model T in the last century.

The announcement, like many by the celebrity governor, was a made-for-television event. Schwarzenegger drove to the news conference on the UC Davis campus in a hydrogen-powered Toyota Highlander. And much of the action Tuesday was symbolic: The state has little money to invest in hydrogen development and instead will rely on federal research dollars and investment from the auto industry and energy companies.

But by using his clout to call for change in car-crazy California, the governor signaled his commitment to environmental issues and reiterated an overarching philosophy of his administration. He said Tuesday he hoped to create jobs through more hydrogen research and to "prove to the world that a thriving environment and economy can coexist.''

In vehicles, hydrogen is used to power a fuel cell that replaces an internal combustion engine. The fuel cell combines hydrogen and oxygen to produce electricity, emitting only steam from an auto tailpipe.

Schwarzenegger refueled the Toyota on Tuesday at UC Davis' hydrogen station, which looks like an oversize gas pump.

The governor's rush to hydrogen, which is a rapid rollout of energy policies also espoused by President Bush, has plenty of skeptics.

Earlier this year a nonpartisan panel of experts convened by the National Academy of Sciences concluded that the first hydrogen fuel cell vehicles wouldn't hit showrooms until 2015 at the earliest.

And many environmentalists aren't sold on hydrogen's promise as a greenhouse gas savior.

Some methods to refine hydrogen for use in cars utilize electricity or natural gas and create pollution, noted Joseph Romm, an assistant secretary of energy for President Bill Clinton and author of "The Hype about Hydrogen: Fact and Fiction in the Race to Save the Climate.''

"You use a lot of fossil fuels at the front end to get to hydrogen at the back end,'' Romm said in a telephone interview Tuesday.

Romm is concerned that government officials are putting too much emphasis on hydrogen to the detriment of hybrid technology that is already successful, through models like the Toyota Prius or hybrid Honda Civic.

"It's really unprecedented for the government to say, 'We know what will be successful in the marketplace,' '' he said.

There are plenty of problems to be solved before hydrogen goes mainstream.

Hydrogen would be used to power a fuel cell, which still costs at least 10 times as much as a combustible engine. And hydrogen storage raises logistical and safety issues.

Still, there are indications that the hydrogen push may be more successful than California's ill-fated attempt to promote electric vehicles a decade ago. While the auto industry fought that effort, most car companies are already spending millions on hydrogen research.

After fueling up Tuesday, Schwarzenegger signed an executive order calling for his Environmental Protection Agency secretary, Terry Tamminen, to draw up a blueprint for the so-called "Hydrogen Highway Network'' by January. Tamminen will examine everything from how to finance the network to where the 200 stations will be located.

There are 17 existing fueling sites, including the one at UC Davis.

Tamminen noted oil companies like Conoco and ChevronTexaco had expressed interest in including a hydrogen pump at California gas stations.

Tamminen will explore public financing options, including a bond issue. California is also expects to get some federal money when hydrogen grants are announced within the next few weeks, Tamminen said.

There are about 60 hydrogen-powered vehicles in operation in the state now. In the Bay Area, the city of San Francisco recently began leasing two such cars from Honda, and AC Transit uses a hydrogen-powered bus along routes in Oakland and Berkeley.

Experts believe it will take policy-makers' commitment to infrastructure to spur automakers to invest in mass production of hydrogen-powered cars.

"It's a chicken-and-egg problem at this point,'' said Daniel Sperling, director of the Institute of Transportation Studies at UC Davis. The institute is a worldwide leader in exploring the use of alternative fuels.

An official with Honda said Schwarzenegger's pledge was crucial.

"This type of government initiative will put the fuel on the road while we put the rubber on the road,'' said Stephen Ellis, manager of alternative fuel vehicles for Honda.

Ellis said Honda was probably 10 years away from producing a hydrogen-powered car for mainstream consumers, however.